Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Do you assume your leadership is useful?

I have just been re-reading a great article by Paul Whitby on Assumed Usefulness (The Psychologist July 1980 pp 308-310) which I had mislaid. I tracked Paul down on Linked-In and he graciously sent me a hard copy.

It is a very neat and powerful piece.

In the article, he ‘proposes a model to explain the widespread phenomenon of unwarranted self confidence’. In 1948, Skinner carried out an experiment with some hungry pigeons where he fed them a pellet of corn at regular intervals. As a result some odd behaviours were ‘reinforced’ (to use the behaviourist vernacular) such as head swaying or hopping from one foot to another. These behaviours persisted long after the corn stopped coming. So in this experiment a pigeon’s random behaviour was reinforced by an unconnected reward.

Paul Whitby then goes on to propose that this is what happens with psychotherapy. Psychotherapy (as opposed to more rigorously tested cognitive behavioural therapy techniques) is very popular and many (both therapists and clients) swear by it. Many psychotherapists assert the value of their craft despite numerous objective studies suggesting otherwise. Paul’s view is that in some cases, psychotherapy clients will get better, as they would have done anyway. These naturally occurring remissions are the equivalent of the pellets of corn for the pigeons, and result in collusion between client and therapist over the value and importance of the therapy. This is very challenging stuff and I don’t intend to enter into the debate here about the value or otherwise of the various psychotherapies in use today. I will leave that to others.

But I do want to pick up on Paul Whitby’s comment towards the end of his article where he says the “model is also applicable outside the healing arts. Probably the most fruitful field for Assumed Usefulness is business and management.”

Since first reading this article more than 20 years ago, I have long wondered the same.

How many of the everyday actions taken by leaders have been randomly reinforced in their pasts by performance improvements that happened through happen chance (or even despite what the leaders did)? How many strategies, plans, protocols and policies have merely seemed to work by the random occurrence of a few positive results?

This debate is raging at the moment in police leadership circles. My colleague Peter Neyroud (erstwhile Chief Constable and Chief Executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency) and David Weisburd (Distinguished Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason
University) have written an article in support of “Police Science: Toward a New Paradigm”. http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/228922.pdf. Malcolm Sparrow puts forward an alternative view that instead of ‘scientific policing’ the focus should remain with ‘problem orientated policing’ (“Governing Science” http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232179.pdf) Both articles are well worth putting the time aside to read in full and weigh up the arguments yourself.

But that debate is not really about whether the actions taken by managers and leaders should be evaluated but more about who should carry out the evaluation and in what context. I suspect that all three authors would agree that there is no room for Assumed Competence in police (or indeed any other) leadership.

So my questions to you are these: 
  • How do you know you are a useful leader?
  • What evidence or feedback are you drawing on to assert or even prove this?
  • How can you demonstrate a causal link between the policies (or whatever) that you have devised / implemented and the results achieved?
  • Indeed, do you agree that there should or ever can be a causal link?
  • Or would you assert that leadership (and all the actions that arise from it) is an art and not a science: leadership is just too ineffable and complex to be evaluated by reductionist methodologies?
Interestingly and with powerful foresight, Paul goes onto cite an article by Eachus (“The psychology of the stock market”, The Psychologist; Bulletin of the BPS pp 100-103, 1988) where he illustrated how “persistent activity [is] maintained by the occasional and random reward of a large profit which is independent of effort or knowledge”. Paul Whitby wonders whether Assumed Usefulness underpins the behaviour of dealers in the stock market. He speculates that “yuppie merchant bankers are well known for their high self-regard” which leads them to an emotional state prone to Assumed Usefulness.

I wonder...

(You may also like to see my article below about bankers’ bonuses and the questions that Boards and investors should still be asking)

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